In 2009, American snowboarding champion Kevin Pearce was enjoying the most successful competitive season of his career, winning several events and challenging the dominance of his friend-turned-rival, the legendary Shaun White. But on Dec. 31, while riding the slopes of Park City, Utah in final training for the 2010 Winter Olympics, he suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him in a coma, followed by a long road of adjusting to what would be a lifelong disability.
Directed by two-time Oscar® nominee Lucy Walker, THE CRASH REEL is an exhilarating ride through the world of Pearce, whose story underscores the high stakes for extreme sports stars. This riveting tale takes surprising turns as it follows his close-knit family and friends, drawing on footage filmed over two decades, from 232 different sources, that captures the soul of the sport.
Kevin Pearce’s professional ascent happens at a time snowboarding tricks are becoming more and more breathtaking, but also drastically more dangerous. His rivalry with superstar Shaun White results in the introduction of now-standard airbags and foam-landing pits. Pearce is poised to compete for the coveted Gold Medal, the pinnacle of the sport and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, when he misses his landing on a complicated “cab double cork” trick and takes a hard fall on the Park City slopes.
THE CRASH REEL captures the horrific crash and shows his buddies, a group of fun-loving professional snowboard stars called the FRENDS crew (who like to say, “There’s no ‘i’ in friendship”), rushing to the scene of the accident, finding him unconscious and bleeding profusely. Seen in disturbing, up-close footage, Pearce is quickly airlifted to University Hospital in Salt Lake City, where doctors scramble to save his life.
His family – father Simon Pearce, a glass and pottery artisan and entrepreneur, mother Pia and brothers David, Andrew and Adam – fly from their home in Vermont to be at his side. When Pearce finally emerges from his coma, it is a huge relief, but the Kevin who wakes up is not the Kevin who crashed. From language to vision, motor skills to memory, impulsivity to poor judgment, he must come to terms with the slow pace of healing.
The Pearces are no strangers to disability. Kevin’s brother David, an eloquent and accomplished young man with Down syndrome, is also an athletic star, who has won several medals at the Special Olympics. The love and support of this remarkable family propel Pearce forward over the course of 2010 as he works with the passion of an elite athlete to get his mind and his body back to what they were. His goal is to experience the freedom and joy of riding his snowboard and hear the deafening roar of crowds once again.
His doctors outline the catastrophic consequences that would result from another snowboarding accident. Activities that once carried a moderate but acceptable level of risk are now extremely dangerous, meaning that anyone who suffers one traumatic brain injury is six times more likely to experience another. Kevin’s brain is so damaged that it can’t sustain a minor hit that would give a regular person a concussion. Put simply, if Pearce hits his head again, even slightly, he could die. And you can’t snowboard professionally without hitting your head.
Having spent two years supporting Pearce’s recovery and always mindful of the horrors of his accident, the Pearces make their case to Kevin, pleading with him to reconsider his decision to ride again. He remains unmoved, begging the question of whether his brain injury has left him incapable of making good decisions. Where does passion end and traumatic brain injury begin?
The high stakes of snowboarding are underscored when Olympic hopeful Sarah Burke, a freestyle skiing champion who pioneered half-pipe skiing, falls and hits her head on the exact same spot of the Park City half-pipe where Pearce was injured. She never recovers, passing away on Jan. 19, 2012. Because she was uninsured, Burke’s family faces $500,000 in medical bills from the futile attempt to save her.
In THE CRASH REEL, the FRENDS crew, along with other pro athletes, share their own experiences of broken bones and countless other injuries, illustrated by remarkable footage of their accidents that underscores the way the evolution of extreme sports has outpaced the conversation about safety.
As athletes fly higher in the air – half-pipe walls now stand 22 feet high, and competitors fly 20 feet above them as they perform flips and spins – attempting tricks that escalate every season in difficulty and danger, Kevin must find the delicate balance between the freedom of riding, and the inescapable risk that comes with it.
Pearce’s family members hold their breath as he slowly and simply tries to find his feet on a snowboard. But Kevin makes a startling realization: He just can’t do it anymore. Now a different person, he must forge a life that reflects who he is in the present, not who he used to be.
Inspired by his brother David, who wears his concern for Kevin’s safety on his sleeve, and the family’s commitment to his long-term health, Kevin grows into a new form of self-acceptance, bidding farewell to his snowboarding dream. Instead, he finds his voice as an advocate for brain trauma sufferers, bringing his infectious joy for life to supporting those with injuries, be they war veterans, sports men and women, or members of the general public, who, through terrible tragedy, have discovered the paradoxical strength and fragility of the mysterious human brain.
The filmmakers have launched a comprehensive traumatic brain injury awareness and outreach campaign called #LoveYourBrain and the Pearce family has launched The Kevin Pearce Fund to support families and individuals affected by traumatic brain injury and other challenges.
The film was an official selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and won the Audience Award at South By Southwest Film Festival.
For more information on the documentary, visit: Facebook: facebook.com/hbodocs; Twitter: @HBODocs #CrashReel,@TheCrashReel and @LucyWalkerfilm #LoveYourBrain; and simonpearce.com/kevinpearce.
THE CRASH REEL is an HBO Documentary Films presentation in association with Impact Partners; a Tree Tree Tree production; cinematography by Nick Higgins; edited by Pedro Kos; co-producers, Jenny Raskin and Adam Pearce; executive producer for Impact Partners, Dan Cogan; executive producer, Geralyn Dreyfous; written by Pedro Kos & Lucy Walker; produced by Julian Cautherley & Lucy Walker; directed by Lucy Walker. For HBO: supervising producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.